contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Tao

INWARD TRAINING

The Way fills the entire world

It is everywhere that people are

But people are unable to understand this.

When you are released by this one word:

You reach up to the heavens above;

You stretch down to the earth below;

You pervade the nine inhabited regions.

What does it mean to be released by it?

The answer resides in the calmness of the mind.

When your mind is well ordered, your sense are well ordered.

When your mind is calm, your senses are calmed.

What makes them well ordered is the mind;

What makes them calm is the mind.

By means of the mind you store the mind.

Within the mind there is yet another mind.

That mind within the mind: it is an awareness that precedes words.

Only after there is awareness does it take shape;

Only after it takes shape is there a word.

Only after there is a word is it implemented.

Only after it is implemented is there order.

Without order, you will always be chaotic.

If chaotic, you die. (1)

The early Taoist classic Inward Training (Nei-yeh) (1) comes out of an oral tradition in which teachers gave their pupils verses to learn and study. Hence the emphatic and somewhat repetitive flavour of the text. Teacher pupil relationships of this kind are very ancient in China, likely emerging out of an indigenous Chinese shamanism (2).

Translator and editor Harold Roth suggests that the ‘one word’ that releases people is Tao itself, used as the focus of meditation, somewhat in the manner of mantra work. When the mind is calm, another mind becomes available – the mind within the mind, that precedes words and takes shape prior to their emergence.

Tao, in this understanding, is experienced as a foundational and pervasive cosmic process in which we can centre ourselves. The recommended practice helps us to cleanse the doors of perception, and achieve that centring. My experience of contemplative inquiry, and the Druid training that preceded it, is that ‘inward training’ works.

(1) Roth, Harold D. (1999) Original Tao: ‘Inward Training’ and the foundations of Taoist mysticism New York, NY: Columbia University Press

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/08/12/

LEARNING FROM THE WATERCOURSE WAY

Alan Watts (1) describes Taoism as the ‘watercourse way’. For him, this ancient philosophy is “a skilful and intelligent following of the course, the current, and grain of natural phenomena – seeing human life as an integral feature of the world process, and not something alien and opposed to it.” It is a point of view that I find of direct relevance to modern Druidry, nature spirituality and ecosophy. (2)

The ancient Taoists themselves said that “true goodness is like water. Water’s good for everything. It doesn’t compete. It goes right down to the low loathly places, and so finds the way”. (3)

Alan Watts continues (1): “Looking at this philosophy with the needs and problems of modern civilisation in mind, it suggests an attitude to the world which must underlie all our efforts towards an ecological technology. The development of such techniques is not just a matter of the techniques themselves, but of the psychological attitude of the technician”.

A detached attitude of objectivity is inadequate for solving the problems we face. Subject and object cannot be separated, for “we and our surroundings are the process of a unified field, which is what the Chinese called Tao”. We have no alternative but to work along with this process by attitudes and methods which could be as technically effective as “judo the ‘gentle Tao’ is effective athletically”. Watts reminds us that human beings have to make the gamble of trusting one another to make any kind of workable community, and concludes that “we must also take the risk of trimming our sails to the winds of nature. For our ‘selves’ are inseparable from this kind of universe, and there is nowhere else to be.”

(1) Alan Watts Tao: the Watercourse Way Souvenir Press: undated Amazon Kindle edition (with the collaboration of Al Chung-Liang Huang ; additional calligraphy by Lee Chih-chang)

(2) Arne Naess Ecology of Wisdom UK: Penguin Books, 2016 (Penguin Modern Classic. First published 2008)

(3) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Power and the Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998 (A new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J.P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

EMPTINESS AND INTERBEING

At this point in my inquiry I want to refine my understanding of ’emptiness’. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is a great help here, in his final commentary on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra .

Thich Nhat Hanh discusses Buddha’s teaching that everything is “a manifestation of causes and conditions” and that nothing is permanent or unchanging. This applies to the whole cosmos, and not just to the apparent world. “Whether you call it atman (the soul) or Brahman (ultimate divinity), whether you call it the individual self or the universal self, you cannot find anything there”. Buddha’s teaching was aimed at undermining both of these notions. Nothing has any ‘self-nature’ (we might use the term ‘essence’).

Thich Nhat Hanh pursues this right into the territory of emptiness. “There are still many people who are drawn into thinking that emptiness is the ground of being, the ontological ground of everything. But emptiness, when understood rightly, is the absence of any ontological ground. … We must not be caught by the notion of emptiness as an eternal thing. It cannot be any kind of absolute or ultimate reality. This is why it can be empty. Our notion of emptiness should be removed. It is empty.”

He goes on to say: “the insight of interbeing is that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else … looking from the perspective of space we call emptiness ‘interbeing’; looking from the perspective of time we call it ‘impermanence’ … to be empty is to be alive, to breathe in and breathe out. Emptiness is impermanence; it is change … we should celebrate. … When you have a kernel of corn and entrust it to the soil, you hope it will be a tall corn plant. If there is no impermanence, the kernel of corn will remain a kernel of corn forever and you will never have an ear of corn to eat. Impermanence is crucial to the life of everything”.

This is one side of an age old controversy within spiritualities of Indian origin. In this blog, I have given friendly attention to the other side as well – particularly Direct Path teachers like Rupert Spira and Greg Goode and the Indian influenced Douglas Harding. In the end I don’t make an absolute judgement about it. My Sophian ‘At-Homeness in the flowing moment’ is compatible with both views. But I’m now finding greater energy and aliveness in the framework here presented by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Increasingly, when I do Direct Path exercises I experience a breaking down of assumptions about experience itself, and a tremendous opening out … but no container called ‘Awareness’ to fill a God sized hole. It’s similar for me with the Harding exercises. My experience is broadly the same, but my felt sense has shifted, and my narrative with it. I’m moving away from big picture truth claims about this, because I have become sceptical that exercises like this provide any grounds for them, one way or the other. Rather, I lean in to an evolving personal understanding, always provisional, of my contemplative experiences.

As a shorthand, I can talk about the tension between a ‘Oneness’ framing and an ‘interbeing’ framing of what people call non-duality. The difference can seem subtle – and it may be best to use ambiguous, open-ended words like ‘Tao’ and preserve a sense of mystery. But at this turning of the year, ‘interbeing’ is my preferred term. It fits better with the eco-spirituality which I take from my Druid journey, and affirms the relational basis of my Sophian Way.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2017

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/the-uses-of-emptiness/ an earlier post that I’ve been able to draw on here.

IMAGINING MYSTERY

‘Imagining mystery’ is the title given by Ursula K. Le Guin for Chapter 25 in A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, her English rendition of the Tao Te Ching.

“There is something

that contains everything

Before heaven and earth

it is.

Oh, it is still, unbodied,

all on its own, unchanging.

“all-pervading,

ever moving.

So it can act as the mother

of all things.

Not knowing its real name,

we only call it the Way.

“If it must be named,

Let its name be Great.

Greatness means going on,

going on means going far,

and going far means turning back.

“So they say, ‘the Way is great,

heaven is great, earth is great;

four greatnesses in the world,

and humanity is one of them’.

“People follow earth,

earth follows heaven,

heaven follows the Way,

the Way follows what is.”

Ursula Le Guin comments: “I’d like to call the ‘something’ of the first line a lump – an unshaped, undifferentiated lump, chaos, before the Word, before Form, before Change. Inside it is time, space, everything; in the womb of the Way. The last words of the chapter, tzu jan, I render as ‘what is’. I was tempted to say, ‘The Way follows itself’, because the Way is the way things are; but that would reduce the significance of the words. They remind us to see the way not as a sovreignty or a dominion, all creative, all yang. The Way itself is a follower. Though it is before everything, it follows what is.”

She also owns to a piece of creative editing. “in all the texts, the fourth verse reads: So they say, ‘the Way is great/heaven is great;/earth is great;/and the king is great./Four greatnesses in the world/and the king is one of them’.” Yet in the next verse, which is the same series in reverse order, instead of ‘the king’, it is ‘the people’ or ‘humanity’. I think a Confucian copyist slipped the king in. The king garbles the sense of the poem and goes against the spirit of the book. I dethroned him.”

I share Ursula Le Guin’s lens, and editorial calls like this are the reason I am drawn to her version more than any other. The text as a whole speaks to our experience of moving between non-duality, dualities, and the multiplicity of the 10,000 the things. For me, the work Ursula Le Guin has done, in reframing traditional understandings of A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, makes her a teacher in her own right.

She calls the first chapter of her version Taoing, emphasising process and flow, and the need to stay open to uncertainties and ambiguities. The text both acknowledges that words over-define experience (thus limiting and distorting it) and understands the need to use them (otherwise why write it?) When taoing, we hold such points of tension. For they are the key to imagining mystery.

“The way you can go

isn’t the real way,

The name you can say

isn’t the real name.

Heaven and earth

begin in the unnamed:

name’s the mother

of the ten thousand things.

So the unwanting soul

sees what’s hidden,

and the ever-wanting soul

sees only what it wants.

Two things, one origin,

but different in name,

whose identity is mystery,

Mystery of all mysteries!

The door to the hidden.”

Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way Boston & London: Shambhala A new English version by Rrsula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

THE TAO OF URSULA K LE GUIN

“The Tao Te Ching is partly in prose, partly in verse; but as we define poetry now, not by rhyme and meter but as a patterned intensity of language, the whole thing is poetry. I wanted to catch that poetry, its terse, strange beauty. Most translations have caught meanings in their net, but prosily, letting the beauty slip through. And in poetry, beauty is no ornament; it is the meaning. It is the truth. We have that on good authority.

“Scholarly translations of the Tao Te Ching as a manual for rulers use a vocabulary that emphasises the uniqueness of the Taoist ‘sage’, his masculinity, his authority. This language is perpetuated, and degraded, in most modern versions. I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul. I would like that reader to see why people have loved the book for twenty-five hundred years.

“It is the most lovable of all the great religious texts, funny, keen, kind, modest, indestructibly outrageous, and inexhaustibly refreshing. Of all the deep springs, this is the purest water. To me, it is also the deepest spring.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, introducing her own English version of the Tao Te Ching*

*Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Power and the Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998 (A new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J.P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

DAILY CULTIVATION

“Whatever system of spirituality you practice, do it every day. If it is prayer, then pray every day. If it is meditation, then meditate every day. If it is exercise, then exercise every day. … This methodical approach is reassuring in several ways. First, it provides you with a process and a means to maintain progress even if that particular day is not inspiring or significant. Just to practice is already good. Secondly, it gives you a certain faith. If you practice every day, it is inevitable that you gain from it. Thirdly, constant practice gives you a certain satisfaction. … [You} can take comfort from the momentum it has given you”.

There have been times in my life when I have followed this approach and times when I have not. I have had a daily practice for the last twelve years and I’m expecting this to continue. For all my inquiring, my looking at different traditions and perceived gains in insight, the pattern and form of my practice has been stable for eight years now. I like it that way for the reasons given by Deng Ming-Tao above. The pattern and form itself holds me up and sustains me. It is one of the things that gives my life a context – more than anything other than close personal relationships.

(1) Deng Ming-Tao 365 Tao Daily Meditations New York, NY: HarperOne, 1992

PNEUMA: THE DIVINE BREATH

Some years ago, this phrase suddenly appeared during a breath meditation: the movement of the breath and stillness in the breath. Meaning has developed gradually. The movement of the breath feels entirely natural, and a comfort to attend to mindfully. Stillness signals another dimension within and behind the movement. In a world like ours, it is a great thing to experience stillness, however fleetingly. There is something healing about it, and it is not dependent on formal meditation. A brief time out can be enough to make a difference.

Going a little deeper has offered more. The quality of stillness cues me in to the ‘not-I-not-other-than-I’ experience. From a Sophian standpoint, traditionally a Gnostic one, I think of the Greek word pneuma which means both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’. Gnostic teacher Stephan Hoeller says: “in Gnosticism pneuma is a spark sprung from the divine flame, and by knowing the pneuma the Gnostic automatically knows the spiritual source from whence it has come … to know one’s deepest self is tantamount to knowing God”. (1)

In my discussions of non-duality, I have generally held to non-theistic language, using terms like ‘Awareness’, ‘Being’, ‘Emptiness’, ‘Fullness’, ‘Openness’, ‘Original Nature’, ‘True Nature’ or ‘Tao’. I have avoided ‘God’ or ‘Spirit’, though in the context of non-duality all these terms point the same way. Yet I have worked with an Ama-Aima breath and mantra meditation, where Ama is the transcendent aspect of the Divine Mother and Aima the immanent aspect. In the myth of Sophia, Ama-Aima is her name as Mother.

I feel more urgently drawn into the orbit of Sophia. C.G Jung, important to modern Gnosticism as well as analytic psychology, believed that we can find ourselves held – almost possessed – by an image of the Divine that calls to us. The call is from beyond our personal will. How we respond is up to us, with consequences attached to any choice. Gnosticism speaks through intuition, imagination and metaphor: in this current, imagery matters. My image is that of Sophia. It is not new, but it is becoming more vivid.

It is as if everything I have learned on my hitherto eclectic journey needs to be brought together – and that I can best achieve this within a distinctive Sophian Way. My recent post –  https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/06/07/embodiment-and-at-homeness/ ‎ described an aspect of it even whilst referencing Focusing and Tibetan Tantric Buddhism as influences. The essence of this Way is simple. The movement of the breath, and stillness in the breath, properly recognized, open me to the experience of pneuma. Everything else, directly or at a remove, flows from that.

(1) Stephan A. Hoeller Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing Wheaton, ILL & Chennai (Madras), India: Quest Books, 2002

 

NONDOING

“Doing nothing is not a universal suggestion; it is specific to the time when a story is ending, and we enter the space between stories. I am drawing here from the Taoist principle of wu-wei. Sometimes translated as ‘nondoing’, a better translation might be ‘noncontrivance’ or ‘nonforcing’. It means freedom from reflexive doing: acting when it is time to act, not acting when it is not time to act. Action is thus aligned with the natural movement of things, in service to that which wants to be born.

“In this I draw inspiration from a beautiful verse from the Tao Te Ching. This verse is extremely dense, with multiple meanings and layers of meaning, and I haven’t found a translation that highlights what I’m drawing from it here. Therefore, the following is my own translation. It is the last half of verse 16 – if you compare translations you will be astonished at how much they differ.

“’All things return to their root.

Returning to the root, there is stillness.

In stillness, true purpose returns.

This is what is real.

Knowing the real, there is clarity.

Not knowing the real, foolish action brings disaster.

From knowing the real comes spaciousness,

From spaciousness comes impartiality,

From impartiality comes sovereignty,

From sovereignty comes what is natural.

What comes naturally, is the Tao.

From the Tao comes what is lasting,

Persisting beyond one’s self’”.

Charles Eisenstein The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2013

GUANYIN IN NOVEMBER

Six months ago I re-oriented my sacred space around an image of Guanyin, an eastern Sophia of Silk Road origin. She hears the cries of the world beyond sectarian boundaries, being equally at home with Buddhists, Taoists, Pagans and Gnostics.

In the dominions of Mahayana Buddhism, she takes on the guise of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. But for me she is not fully defined by that identity. She is also a dragon lady, reflecting ancient beliefs in divine animal powers, “still with us in dreams and visions as representatives of the source of life … movers of the world”. She is the sacred mare, great mother goddess, roaming the wild fields of the earth. Arriving in China, she links with and transforms other goddesses, “the sea-goddesses of China’s many port cities, the tribal and mountain mothers who protect birth and children, and the dark female, valley spirit of the Taoists”.

On the evening of 2 November, I consulted the Guanyin oracle. I was given verse 81, ‘The Weary Travelers’ (1).

In late fall

Leaves fall from the oaks

And weary travelers leave like migratory birds.

Heaven will protect their journey.

It seems very suited to place and time. In the commentary, Guanyin asks me to “turn away from the busy world” so that “a new spring, blessed by heaven, emerges within for you and your loved ones”. I am offered the image of another journey – seemingly in company, metaphorically on wings – at a time of physical lassitude. There is a promise of blessing, or regeneration, that will also impact on my loved ones.

Guanyin cherishes and helps to awaken her devotees, always challenging us to return to the source and the way. “Her compassion and wisdom offer an exit from the compulsive worlds of greed, lust and power and a return to the true thought of the heart.” In my life, she forms part of a poetry of practice, a poetry that the heart demands, not linked to any external truth claim. As I wrote when I began this phase of my work (2), this is a matter of feeling and imagination, not of cosmology or belief. In this respect, I feel like Soren Kierkegaard, the religious existentialist who talked about loyalty to a ‘subjective truth’ of his own existence, facing the uncertainties of the world with passionate commitment to a way of life.

Throughout my six months of sitting before this altar and exploring Buddhism, the image of Guanyin has kept me both devoted and free-spirited. I have found a Buddhist sangha that I can be part of, but I am not a Buddhist and have no aspiration to make a formal commitment to Buddhism. As an Existentialist, I am a kind of doubting Gnostic, and the ancient Gnostics were people who attached themselves “to various symbol systems and ‘deconstructed’ them in order to orient us toward the gnosis”. My centre is my contemplative inquiry, over which the goddess of wisdom and compassion imaginatively presides. I continue to sit at her altar, and I will consult her oracle from time to time.

(1) Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009.  (NB I use the form Guanyin. Stephen Karcher uses Kuan Yin.)

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/05/07/sophia-and-guanyin/

 

GARY SNYDER: ‘WILD’

“The word wild is like a grey fox trotting off through the forest, ducking behind bushes, going in and out of site. Up close, first glance, it is ‘wild’ – then further into the woods next glance it’s ‘wyld’ and it recedes and it recedes via Old Norse villr and Old Tuetonic wilthijaz into a faint pre-Tuetonic ghweltijos which means, still, wild and maybe wooded (wald) and lurks back there with possible connections to will, to Latin silva (forest, sauvage) and to the Indo-European root ghwer, base of Latin ferus (feral, fierce), which swings us around to Thoreau’s ‘awful ferity’ shared by virtuous people and lovers. The Oxford English Dictionary has it this way:

Of animals – not tame, undomesticated, unruly

Of plants – not cultivated

Of land – uninhabited, uncultivated

Of foodcrops – produced or yielded without cultivation

Of societies – uncivilized, rude, resisting constituted government

Of individuals – unrestrained, insubordinate, licentious, dissolute, loose. “Wild and wanton widowes”, 1614

Of behavior – violent, destructive, cruel, unruly

Of behavior – artless, free, spontaneous. “Warble his native wood-notes wild” – John Milton

Wild is largely defined in our dictionaries by what – from a human standpoint – it is not. It cannot be seen by this approach for what is is. Turn it the other way:

Of animals – free agents, each with its own endowments, living in natural systems

Of plants – self-propagating, self-maintaining, flourishing in accord with innate qualities

Of land – a place where the original and potential vegetation and fauna are intact and in full interaction and the landforms are entirely the result of non-human forces. Pristine.

Of foodcrops – food supplies made available and sustainable by the natural excess and exuberance of wild plants in their growth and in the production of quantities of fruit and seeds

Of societies – societies whose order has grown from within and is maintained by the force of consensus and custom rather than explicit legislation. Primary cultures, which consider themselves the original and eternal inhabitants of their territory. Societies which resist political and economic domination by civilization. Societies whose economic system is in a close and sustainable relation to the local ecosystem

Of individuals – following local custom, style and etiquette without concern for the standards of the metropolis or nearest trading post. Unintimidated, self-reliant, independent

Of behavior – freely resisting any oppression, confinement or exploitation. Far-out, outrageous, ‘bad’, admirable.

Of behavior – artless, free, spontaneous, unconditioned. Expressive, physical, openly sexual, ecstatic

Most of the senses in this second set of definitions come close to being how the Chinese define the term Dao, the way of Great Nature: eluding analysis, beyond categories, self-organizing, self-informing, playful, surprising, impermanent, insubstantial, independent, complete, orderly, unmediated, freely manifesting, self-authenticating, self-willed, complex, quite simple. Both empty and real at the same time. In some cases, we might call it sacred. It is not far from the Buddhist term Dharma with its original senses of forming and firming.”

Gary Snyder The Practice of the Wild Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1990

In a preface to the 2010 edition, Gary Snyder describes his path as “a kind of old time Buddhism which remains connected to animist and shamanist roots. Respect for all living beings is a basic part of that tradition. I have tried to teach others to meditate and enter into the wild areas of the mind. … Even language can be seen as a wild system”.

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